Thursday, April 19, 2012

F----ing Perfect

In the post prior to this, I reflected a bit on Twilight. I'd like to return to that, in order to illuminate a trend that has been surging through culture for quite some time now. This is the description of Bella, the protagonist of Twilight, on page five or so of the book:
Maybe if I looked like a girl from Phoenix should, I could work this to my advantage. But physically, I'd never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond - a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps - all of the things that go with living in the valley of the sun.
Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete; I didn't have the necessary hand-eye coordination to play sports without humiliating myself - and harming both myself and anyone else who stood to close.
This is what first connected me to the book and what kept me attached to the series longer than I would have otherwise. When I was in high school, a not-attractive clumsy girl who couldn't tan appealed to me. Things, of course, have changed since then. Stephanie Meyer doesn't spend much time describing Bella throughout the books - for one, it's in first person narration, and secondly, she does this intentionally, in order for the reader to "more easily step into her shoes." According to Wikipedia, she states that Bella is:
very fair-skinned, with long, straight, dark brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Her face is heart-shaped—a wide forehead with a widow's peak, large, wide-spaced eyes, prominent cheekbones, and then a thin nose and a narrow jaw with a pointed chin. Her lips are a little out of proportion, a bit too full for her jaw line. Her eyebrows are darker than her hair and more straight than they are arched. She's five foot four inches tall, slender but not at all muscular, and weighs about 115 pounds. She has stubby fingernails because she has a nervous habit of biting them.
I have a bit of a problem with Bella Swan. First, she's not supposed to be "beautiful," but all the boys in school find her gorgeous. Secondly, she thinks that because she's from Phoenix she should be blond and tan. Thanks for that stereotype re-enforcer. Thirdly, she's "soft" and yet has "prominent cheekbones" (again, with the cheekbones) and slender. And fourth, 115 pounds? And she's "soft?"

(And okay, what's with the random details about her eyebrows being darker than her hair? I'm sorry, I just had to mention it). 

Yes, I know that Bella is fictional and that it shouldn't matter what her weight is. Because weight shouldn't matter. But in Bella's case, a girl who's totally insecure with her body, she begins to perpetuate something I see more and more in society - a slim girl who's not happy with the way she looks, even though people think she's attractive. Really, this could have been a great opportunity for Meyer to talk about body image issues in culture and, with Edward showing he can love her just for who she is, reveal that it isn't about weight or appearance. That didn't happen, but hey, I'm not the author so that decision is none of my business.

Except that it kind of is. Because we're talking about culture here and Twilight is a massive phenomenon. And since Bella never really deals with her body image issues (SPOLIERS! She just becomes a vampire), the entire thing seems to be confirming such business as normal. Which is crap.

I should admit from the get-go, being as honest a blogger as I can, that this is a really personal and sensitive topic for me. I have struggled with body image issues my entire life. I still do. Like Bella, I don't think I'm beautiful (and I'm going to tell you right now, don't use my profile pic as an argument as otherwise because that was taken my friend who's a professional photographer and it's been magicked up). Unlike Bella, I have rarely been called beautiful. I don't have guys thinking I'm attractive or saying so or complimenting me (and when they do, it's often creepy and unwanted. But that's a different story). I think every girl I know has body image issues (and if you want an account other than mine, check out this post my friend wrote; it's brilliant). And no matter what we seem to do, we are still unsatisfied with how we look.

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite authors on feminism, Susan Bordo. Bordo is one of the first cultural theorists I ever read and I absolutely adore her work. She has this wonderful, wonderful book called Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, and if you have any interest at all, AT ALL, in feminist discourse and body image, READ THIS BOOK. Trust me.
Bordo describes the body as a medium of culture, that through things like manners and habits and routines, culture is "made body" (165). Our civilization has left a distinctive imprint upon us and guides and shapes us - for good and for bad - into specific ways of living in these fleshy forms. Unfortunately for women, things have not turned out so well. Though normalizing disciplines like diet, make-up, and dress, "we continue to memorize on our bodies the feel and conviction of lack, of insufficiency, of never being good enough. At the farthest extremes, the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation, and death" (166). In short, society has told us the way women are supposed to be and, through our daily practices, we try to make that ideal real.

Sometimes, that leads to terrible things. This article from the Huffington Post was mentioned to me the other day. And while I've been on Tumblr for a number of months now, I had no idea this phenomenon existed. I can't say I'm surprised (I know about ana - groups that support anorexia in forums, blogs, etc) but that doesn't make it any less sad. But Bordo has some well-put words on why eating disorders and groups that support them become so common:
... as young women today continue to be taught traditionally "feminine" virtues, to the degree that they professional arena is open to them they must also learn to embody the "masculine" language and values of that arena - self-control, determination, cool, emotional discipline, mastery, and so on... Our bodies, too, as we trudge to the gym every day and fiercely resist both our hungers and our desire to sooth ourselves, are becoming more and more practiced as the "male" virtues of control and self-mastery... The anorectic pursues these virtues with single-minded, unswerving dedication. "Energy, discipline, my own power will keep me going," says ex-anorectic Aimee Liu, recreating her anorexic days. "I need nothing and now one else... I will be master of my own body, if nothing else I vow." (171-172)
We find ourselves in what Bordo describes as a double bind -  in this need to portray both the "masculinity" of self-control and yet have the "femininity" that culture as ascribed to us, we have found ourselves caught in an impossible position. Trying to do both leads to discontent, self-esteem issues, and, sometimes, eating disorders.

Of course, people have tried to counter-act this feeling of "you have to look a certain way" and express that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "beauty is only skin deep." Which is great when all said and done, but it doesn't help. Yes, of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder - but the beholder happens to have a lot of society agree with them. Yes, beauty is only skin deep - but the skin is what we treasure. The whole idea of what beauty is becomes an immensely complicated topic with these suggestions. So then it just seems easier to declare, "Everyone's beautiful!" Except this Tumblr post points out that this also falls short.

Except that everyone IS beautiful - in their own distinct way, they are. Because beauty is such an infinitely complicated topic that no magazine or advertisement will ever be able to simply articulate it. And even if we are talking about skin level, I don't think I've ever seen someone who was truly unattractive. Yes, I see some people as more attractive than others, due to my own subjective personal tastes. But I've never seen someone who was unattractive, and certainly not ugly. Ugliness is not something that resides at skin level.

Of course, then, there's the trouble of what I said earlier about my profile picture and the fact that I don't think of myself as beautiful. I can see everyone else in the world as beautiful - except for myself. What the hell is that? Really? It probably has something to do with people calling Jennifer Lawrence fat and saying that Angelina Joli is too skinny and saying Lady Gaga is a drag queen. Because if these people aren't beautiful, I certainly never will be. And this:

And to add insult to injury, these issues aren't always taken seriously. As Bordo says, "If we are never happy with ourselves, it is implied, it is due to our female nature, not to be taken seriously or made into a political question" (253). It's just who we are, we complain about our bodies and worry about our dress size and wonder if our clothes make our butts look big. That's just "what we do." That's "how it is." But the louder we speak, the more we press the issue that's not okay, the more society thinks we're just playing a role. But it's more than that - so much more. 

Unfortunately, as is life, there are no easy answers. But Susan Bordo gives some good advice. She states that:
feminist cultural criticism is not a blueprint for the conduct of personal life (or political action, for that matter) and does not empower (or require) individuals to 'rise above' their culture or to become martyrs to feminist ideals. It does not tell us what to do (although I continually get asked such questions when I speak at colleges) - whether to lose weight or not, wear make-up or not, lift weights or not. Its goal is edification and understanding, enhanced consciousness of power... It is up to the reader to decide how, when, and where (or whether) to put that understanding to further use, in the particular, complicated, and ever-changing context that is his or her's life and no one else's. (30)
The only advice she can give is what she knows and, in her views, she sees the body "as a site of struggle, where we must work to keep our daily practices in the service of resistance to gender domination, not in the service of docility and gender normalization...It also demands an awareness of the often contradictory relations between image and practice, between rhetoric and reality." (184).

I can give no better advice. But I can give you some examples of it. Like Miley Cyrus saying totally true things:
 And Jessica Alba before and after Photoshop:
(She looks way more natural and comfortable before; so much so).

And this:

Because you are beautiful. Trust me.

And you know what, dammit? So am I.

Yep, that's me tonight. In the thing. Just Photobooth and no retouching. If I'm gonna talk the talk, I'd better walk the walk. It's up to me to figure out how to apply this; why not start here? :)

Hey, I even found a hedgehog photo that applies to all this:

Can we just agree that Martin Freeman is lovely and hedgehogs are lovely but that they do not look alike? Please? Just for tonight, can you agree with me on this much? Because we have enough body images problems than comparing people to different animal species right now.

And on that note, I'm going to shamelessly entice you to tune in for my next post in which I will discuss body issues again, in regards to men. That's right, gentlemen - I wouldn't leave you out. No way, no how. And trust me - it'll be worth a look.

Note: all citations are from Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body by Susan Bordo. 1993. University of California Press.

1 comment:

  1. I used to do this, but I think I better start again. Every day, tell someone that they are beautiful. It will make their day.